SAINT ANTONY – The work of a firefighter is grueling, but it is not only physically dangerous. Seeing so much death and destruction is mentally and emotionally draining.
However, in a profession like firefighting, vulnerability can be hard to find.
That’s why the San Antonio Fire Department just hosted a mental health rest week, to bring this difficult topic to the fore.
They did it with the help of one of their own.
Firefighter Kevin Burke is also a performer, musician and international spoken word artist. He has been with SAFD since 2016.
“Anything and anything you could think of. I mean, we’re here for medical runs. We’re here for psychological runs, fires, car wrecks or car wrecks, all that kind of stuff,” Burke said.
A few years ago, he was temporarily trapped in a fire, and he described the terrifying experience in a powerful spoken word performance called “Full Disclosure.”
“Full disclosure. I got a little bloated at work. I saw a black and orange wall, look at my lieutenant and it pushed him inside me, me through the door, the door closed separating me from all of them,” his voice says as the screen shows footage of the massive fire.
The video was created by the organization Write About Now, a poetry community showcasing poetry from around the world. Their video allowed Burke to break down mental health barriers related to the fire department.
When Burke recently learned that more firefighters die from suicide than fire, he knew he had to set him free.
“Full disclosure,” the video continues. “My biggest fear is not getting hurt or even dying, sometimes. This is who I will be at the end of every shift. Will my heart eventually break hard enough to shrink? in ashes ? “
The release of the video freed him to dig deep and inspire others to talk about their lowest moments.
“I went through a rough patch and I had a very low point, we’ll just say, and luckily I had people around me who said they were worried about me that I should, you know , seek help,” Burke said. .
He has since been in therapy and is now dedicated to helping his peers find help as well.
This month, the SAFD organized a week of rest on mental health.
A counselor visited each station in town, talking about resources and ways to help each other.
“We broadcast messages every day. We have released a podcast, we have a video that is playing. We basically assess everything this service does for our members and then make sure they are aware of all the resources for them and their families,” SAFD Chief Charles Hood said.
Chef Hood understands how deep mental health issues run in his industry.
“I get these calls coming to my phone. Child killed in a train accident, a person sets himself on fire. We do these errands and then we have to go home to our families,” Hood said.
He saw devastating fallout from unhealed invisible wounds.
“There have been far too many incidents across the country where first responders have harmed themselves, first responders have lost their jobs when they shouldn’t, first responders have acted because of things that ‘they saw,” Hood said.
The mental health stigma runs deep in general, but even deeper in the fire service.
“Hard to get guys to say when they need help and not see that as a sign of weakness,” Burke said.
“We are in a macho industry. We’re Type A individuals, so we don’t normally seek help from people,” Hood admitted.
It changes the way they debrief after serious events and adds trauma therapy dogs to the rosters.
“He would be a working dog who is trained to deal with traumatic situations. We know medically, scientifically, that pets give us hope. Pets lower our blood pressure, pets lower our heart rate. Pets are comforting. So we’re going to start a program here,” Hood said.
He acknowledges that the battle for mental health will only get fiercer if it is not addressed openly.
“Our town is growing, call volumes are increasing, society is much more violent than it was when I started,” Hood said.
Thus, the effort to keep firefighters emotionally and mentally resilient must be prioritized.
It’s a goal that Burke is proud to be a part of.
“There has already been a lot in place, from our staff psychologist to the peer support team to CIT training. Just make it more visible and then try more progressive things like the dog program and having somewhere to go on your phone, whether that’s through this app or just a landing page,” Burke said.
Burke’s poem continued: “Full disclosure. We are firefighters. We love our job. We are trauma jugglers wading through a daily stream of tragedy. We joke about each other’s close calls, bloody medical gloves, invincible laughter together. We laugh loud and clear and get really quiet when no one is around.
Burke’s video was released during Mental Health Week.
It was another display of bravery, in the form of vulnerability.
“My phone was exploding with guys reaching out to me, thanking me and like I said, telling me their stories and, you know, that was really cool,” he said.
“Full disclosure,” Burke said near the end of the video. “I agree. Seriously, I am. I see a good therapist, I ask for help when I need it. I just wish more of us did.
Currently, Burke is completing her Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. He wants to become a therapist, help his fellow firefighters.
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